Review of reviews: Art
The Whitney clash: Do an artist’s rights have limits?
A new signpost has just been added to the history of contemporary art, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. When New York’s Whitney Museum opened its prestigious Biennial on March 17, one painting hanging in the show ignited an “excruciating” debate that will forever change how the art community discusses cultural appropriation and censorship. “We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us,” but Dana Schutz’s Open Casket actually inspired calls from other artists for its removal and even its destruction. A depiction of the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black Chicagoan who famously was murdered and mutilated by two white men in 1955 Mississippi, the painting was not meant to provoke black viewers. It has, though, and the passionate discussion that ensued has been bracing and upsetting, but arguably beneficial. Open Casket will not be destroyed. Given its new significance, “it is also beyond destruction.”
Schutz should never have made the painting, said Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye in TheNewRepublic.com. As artist and writer Hannah Black pointed out in an online petition signed by more than 30 of her peers, “it’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun.” To make matters worse, Schutz, a white woman, chose a victim who was killed because another white woman lied about his grabbing her. In 1955, Till’s mother chose to show the world what hatred had done by displaying her son in an open casket and welcoming in news photographers—“a strikingly effective piece of visual rhetoric” that galvanized the civil rights movement. By taking an expressive approach to re-creating that image, using angry brushstrokes to avoid fully confronting what brutal violence had done to Till’s face, Schutz has insulted Till and the brave act of his mother.
Now many voices are having their say, as they should, said Felix Salmon in TinyLetter.com. Black’s open letter, which insisted that “white free speech” is not a natural right but “a right founded on the constraint of others,” is “exactly the kind of provocation at which the Biennial has always excelled.” Artist Parker Bright also made his mark, spending a full day obstructing visitors’ view of Open Casket while wearing a T-shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle.” In response, a contrite Schutz has vowed never to sell the painting, and the Whitney has defended its decision to display it—as one artist’s response to the history of U.S. race relations. A white artist’s use of a broken black body as material is hard to defend, said Antwaun Sargent in Artsy.net, but to censor the image would be worse. Calling for its destruction encourages “the very same processes of erasure that have long denied black artists a place in museums and suppressed black experience in society at large.” ■